Finally. Le troisième libre.

So right now I’m in my robe, sitting on my ball, drinking my morning coffee and smoothie.  I am a creature of habit.

But today I get to re-embark upon my favorite new habit of starting a new book.  I’ve only done it twice before, and I’m a bit nervous, still.  What if it doesn’t “go?”  I’m far less anxious, however, than I was starting the first.  In fact, I’m barely anxious at all, really.  But that fear is still there, nestled in my heart of hearts, and I know it is the same fear that used to keep me from even beginning a project.

Indeed, I had never seriously tried to become a writer because of this fear.  I took a creative writing class in high school and one at Boston University, both as electives.  In those classes, I wrote really good bad poetry.  It was bad poetry because it wasn’t really poetry.  That said, they were good tableaus of particular instances.  Indeed, as I illustrated in my academic work, there was no question that I was a capable writer.  But I wanted to be an Artiste, a Genius . . . I wanted to write the Next Great American Novel.

So I would sit down and stew and stew and think and think (never outlining, of course, because the Muse does not answer to an Outline), until, finally, I would sit down and Begin Writing.  Usually I never got past the first sentence.  I would write something crap, I would realize that the Muse was apparently passing over my lintel, and I would give up.  For those creative writing classes, however, I had to finish my short stories.  And, once again, they were fairly well written bags of garbage.  I would inevitably try to imitate Joyce, and I would have an “epiphany,” only mine would involve watching someone smoke, or rake leaves, or buy toilet paper, and then my protagonist would realize something nonsensical, and then the story would peter out.

So I finished, for all intents an purposes, two (short) stories in my entire life, before I wrote my novel.  I’d embarked (by writing a bad first line) upon many more, but had almost instantaneously given up.  Which means that I was as surprised as anyone else when I thought to myself, “I’m going to write this particular kind of book . . .” and then had a copy in hand around three months later.

Clearly, something happened to that girl who couldn’t even commit to putting pen to paper to make her the woman who sat, staring in an admixture of shock and pleasure, at the completed manuscript on her monitor.  

That something, my friends, was grad school.  Obviously, I don’t recommend going to grad school just to become a writer.  It is a hellish process, and only for the insane, masochistic, and those who genuinely love the subject they are embarking upon to study.  The lesson I learned was also a very roundabout lesson, and it’s the lesson I’m sure people learn (in an equally painful manner, but without having to read Deleuze) through working in writer’s critiques groups for years.

It’s a simple lesson, so simple that the girl at BU would have snorted in contempt had someone told it to her, because it seems so obvious.  But it was holding her back, and she couldn’t see that yet.  Here’s your lesson, people.  Keep in mind you normally get charged tuition for such fortune-cookie wisdom:

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough.

Duh!  Obvious!  No shit, Sherlock!  But I didn’t understand that supposedly simple fact.  When a perfect, untouchable, beautiful sentence didn’t pop out of my brain the minute I sat down to write my Magnus Opus, I thought, “Oh, shit, that means I SUCK.”  And when I first started my PhD., and I sat down to write my first chapter, and out popped something rather inane, I thought, “OH MY GOD I CAN’T DO THIS I’M NOT SMART ENOUGH WHAT WAS I THINKING.”  So I would research more, to become “smarter,” when the real problem was that I was a yellow-bellied wussy.  I was never going to think through my own ideas until I sat down and thought them through, on paper.  I was certainly never going to be able to express my ideas in a coherent fashion until I sat down and thought them through, on paper.  But the last thing I wanted to do was put them ON PAPER, because I felt that once I did, that was it.  I would be judged on that writing and I couldn’t take it back.  

Finally, my supervisor at the time MADE me turn something in.  And she ripped it apart.  It was terrible: badly written, half-baked, and fairly silly.  BUT it had a few golden ideas and a few sentences where I’d finally cracked the style they expected me to use.  When I realized that she was happy with what I’d done, bad though I knew it was, I became happy with these results.  So she sent me back and I rewrote it.  And she ripped it apart, again, but there was more gold stuff there.  This happened till it was good.  And it happened with every subsequent chapter and every subsequent supervisor, until I had a thesis that passed and I earned my doctorate.

What I learned from that process (which I would have told you I knew already, but I now realize I didn’t), was that rough drafts are about getting it out.  Get it out, and then you can polish it.  But if you don’t have anything to work with, the work never begins.  And rough drafts are supposed to be rough.  They get less rough, as you gain experience, but they’re always going to be rough.  Rather than a bad thing, however, this is really an opportunity.  It’s like roughing up a surface before you try to glue something to it; in a draft that’s weak you can see where it needs to be made stronger and you can address those issues more easily.  And if you go at it knowing it will be rough, you are more likely to take advantage of this precious, malleable stage, and really start engaging with and improving your writing, rather than complacently accepting second-best.

Lemme know what you think.  Is there a particular stage of the process that is your particular bear trap?  Do you struggle with starting projects?  Or is finishing them your downfall?  What helped you “crack” the process?


8 thoughts on “Finally. Le troisième libre.”

  1. For some reason, the beginning and end come so easy to me! It is the middle where I get stuck. I am in the midst of my own WIP and I am almost halfway in and wondering if the middle part of my book works. All my characters want to do is talk and blabber on. Because this is the first draft, I know it is really, really rough. Makes me wonder when I revise what I will add and take out.

  2. Revising is always difficult. It's hard to get enough distance between you and your work to see it objectively. Two things I find helpful are time and dive-bombing. By time, I mean just putting something down and not looking at it for a few days, then coming back to it. And by divebombing, I mean just picking chapters up randomly and assessing them, rather than reading chronologically and working your way through stuff.

    This is also where beta readers come in; I have an Alpha team who reads everything as I go and they are, without a doubt, the Secret of My Success.

  3. I was just thinking about this subject today. Part of my problem is that you never reach a level of perfection with writing. There's never a point where you say, "okay, I've learned enough now," and it just frustrates me to know that what I think is damned good writing today will be the "crap I wrote a couple months ago" in a few months. That's not to say I don't think some of my earlier work has merit, but I guess I'm impatient enough to want to finally be "good enough." And that stage of perfection doesn't exist, especially not with writing where everything is so subjective.

    I'm off to write my "rough" rough draft now, after I tell my perfectionistic inner child to hush. 😉

  4. Exactly, Cari, and it's something that TERRIFES me about actually getting published. I mean, I'm thrilled, but I know damned well I'm going to WINCE in six months, when I see a sentence that I totally could have written better. But you're absolutely right; perfection DOES NOT exist, and if you shoot for perfection than it means two things. You'll never get ANYTHING done (as I never got anything done before TR), OR you'll have done something to disable/shut up your inner critic. Which means that you've lost your compass, somewhere. So great post, you nailed two really big ideas for me. Thanks!

  5. Funnily enough, I just found a random (still wrapped) fortune cookie floating around my purse and ate it. The fortune? "Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied." The cookie's a bit late, but spot on. 😉

  6. I'm a little weird in that the first draft is a lot harder for me than the second. Maybe it's because I was an editor for several years, but I like to have something to work on. It's not that I'm terrified of the blank page, but I do like to see some words already there that I can shape. This means I sometimes spend too much time reshaping a scene I've already written when I should be pushing forward. I'll have numerous scenes that are in pretty good shape in the second draft, but of course many of those scenes need to get cut or refocused at that stage. The process takes longer than I'd like, especially now that I'm writing under contract.

    You drafted your first novel in three months? That's impressive! When did you sleep?

  7. I do a LOT of drafting, and I get each chapter to a pretty decent standard before I move on. So I think we're probably similar in that respect?

    I never said the first draft of my novel was any good. 😉 It got hacked to bits after some agent feedback. And actually, I slept very little. I was a wee bit obsessed. Ob. Sessed. 😉 I've gotten better.

  8. Well, as you say in your post, grad school is good practice for getting used to having your work hacked to bits. 🙂

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